Hell is War

There really aren’t that many great movies about that 1950-53 skirmish, known to most as the Korean War and to stalwart veterans and military historians as the Korean Conflict. Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1950) comes quickly to mind, as does Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1958). But the best of them all might be the most obscure, Anthony Mann’s blistering 1957 drama MEN IN WAR, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

There’s so much to cover here (from both sides of the camera) that it’s difficult to begin, save to say that the movie could be Hollywood’s most savage, grittiest depiction of combat made up till that time. Indeed, 1957 was a banner year for war flicks, the top international box-office champ being The Bridge on the River Kwai. Suffice to say, MEN IN WAR makes Kwai look like a vacation picture, or, at the very least, The Harvey Girls. This triumph of grim realism is, as all fine motion pictures are, a result of first-rate collaborative efforts comprising the director, the writer, cinematographer, composer and the superb ensemble cast.  Again, a lot to cover.

The narrative, based on the tense novel Day Without End by Van Van Praag, was adapted and written for the screen by the prolific and legendary Philip Yordan. Yordan, who seemed to spring out of nowhere, had a penchant for natural dialogue and creating ideally cinematic situations for his protagonists to squeeze in and out of, all lubricated by a heavy coating of sarcasm. Long story short: he was a genius. His dubious rep, according to many who knew him, was as an evil genius; writer Ben Barzman’s widow (Barzman and Yordan cowrote El Cid) dubbed him a Chicago gangster. Indeed, he was a street kid right out of some Warner Bros. Thirties flick, the one destined to grow up to be Jimmy Cagney, and end up frying in the chair.

A tough talking, take-no-prisoners mercenary, Yordan, according to some, made his fortune as a front – tossing blacklisted writers a miniscule piece of a magnificent salary that he mostly pocketed. Incredibly, many claim that he never wrote a word during his entire career – a swipe that seems unlikely, as there is a theme and style that flows through his work. If true, Yordan’s genius overlapped into choosing a plethora of terrific scribes who effortlessly could mimic identical prose.  Furthermore,, Yordan’s career extended way past the blacklist, so it’s probable that most of his protractors simply spread these tales for the mere reason that they hated his guts. Yordan, who quickly realized the rewards of independence, latched on to an indie production deal with producer Sidney Harmon to form Security Pictures, a remarkable teaming that resulted in a handful of wonderful movies, of which MEN IN WAR is one. Yordan later attached himself to Samuel Bronston’s epic bandwagon and still later to the 1960s evocation of the Cinerama Company, a bogus outfit responsible for a bushel of Cinerama pictures whose scam was that none of their output was actually in the tri-screen process.

The independence factor was what also intrigued Anthony Mann, who was just coming out of a rocky professional relationship with star Jimmy Stewart, a once-triumphant teaming whose partnership had degenerated into one of seething acrimony (including two movies, albeit successful ones, that the director had not wanted to make: The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command). The director’s flight from the western Night Passage put the kibosh on any more Mann-Stewart pictures, an act of defiance that earned the star’s ire.

Mann’s problems didn’t end there; another recent project, which he envisioned as a bold new direction for American movies, was to be an unbridled uncensored version of James M. Cain’s 1937 novel Serenade. The final debauchery totally bastardized Mann’s vision – the rise and fall of a bisexual musician, admittedly an unlikely subject for 1956 (even the best moment in the movie, a violent seduction scene with a lusty senorita in a church during a ferocious thunder storm, is about as erotic as an Afterschool Special). It became a limp Mario Lanza vehicle, the only perk to Mann being that he married the smoldering costar, Sarita Montiel.  That didn’t end well either.

The aforementioned Security Pictures, to be distributed by United Artists, offered Mann a carte blanche from casting to final cut. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

The plot of MEN IN WAR concerns a beleaguered, ever-decreasing fatigued American brigade, seemingly forgotten by the top brass. Roaming the Mephistophelian  Korean landscape, surrounded by dead bodies, shriveled foliage, steaming ruins of recent carnage and various other artifacts of the price of glory, the band, led by pacifist Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan), is also severely psychologically bankrupt.

Things take a turn for the worse when they happen upon Montana (Aldo Ray), a war-mongering lunatic who carries a near-dead Colonel (Robert Keith) around with him like a souvenir. Ray is like Norman Mailer’s Sergeant Croft on steroids (think about that!), ironically a character he would portray the following year in Raoul Walsh’s uneven version of The Naked and the Dead. The Colonel, who, too, has had enough of war, is the victim of a stroke; he cannot talk or move and Montana’s maniacal devotion to his superior underlines the definition of “grotesque.” Ray’s character speaks to him, asks his advice, and turns vicious if anyone besmirches the Colonel’s name (a GI’s sneering that Montana lives to wipe the Colonel’s…that’s as far as he gets). What makes this pair important is that they have a functioning jeep – a transport that just might get them the hell out…of hell. Being ordered via walkie-talkie to perform one last mission en route to supposed safety takes its toll on all involved.

The cast is absolutely superb, with real-life pacifist Ryan delivering one of his finest performances; he’s equally matched by Aldo Ray as Montana, whose disgust for a liberal officer is one of the squad’s worst-kept secrets. Their simmering hatred for one another fuels their path to (supposed) victory (Mann, Ryan, Ray, Yordan and Security would team up again the next year for phenomenally successful God’s Little Acre, which at last gave the director his cinematic chance for sexual liberation). Robert Keith, as the Colonel, barely utters a word during the proceedings; in fact, he’s practically comatose, yet manages to deliver an amazing performance, via facial expressions utilizing eye contact and quivering lips in perhaps the most effective way since the advent of Clara Bow. The rest of the cast is about as good as it gets: Vic Morrow (who became a Mann favorite), Nehemiah Persoff, Phillip Pine, Tony Ray (Nick’s son; Ray and Mann were best buds), L.Q. Jones, Scott Marlowe, Victor Sen Yung and the wonderful African-American actor James Edwards, whose quiet dignity was sadly never able to rival the more high-profile emergence of Poitier and Belafonte.

The somber score is by Elmer Bernstein and the stark black-and-white camerawork by Ernest Haller.

It’s almost devastating to see Ryan struggling to keep his crew alive, concurrently striving to silence their racism and defeatism. Refusing to resort to using the term “gook,” Ryan stutters, referring to their adversaries as the enemy. When Ray happily machine guns a potential useful captive, Ryan screams out, “I wanted a prisoner, not garbage!”

The movie was swiftly and economically made, shot in and around Griffith Park and Bronson Canyon. It was modestly profitable and critically acclaimed (particularly in Europe), but the big-ass money would finally come in 1958 when God’s Little Acre hit the screen.

The trek of MEN IN WAR malingering in public domain purgatory is almost as harrowing as the scenario.

Once great-looking late-night TV fodder, the descent into p.d. served up a varying collection of godawful video tapes, laserdiscs and DVDs. It’s a revelation to finally see a 35MM edition in very-good-excellent shape (some slight wear at reel changes, but nothing crucial) and in the picture’s original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Thank you, Olive Films (they have also released a Blu-Ray of God’s Little Acre, which shall be reviewed soon).

As if to warn off moviegoers seeking escapism, the posters for MEN IN WAR headlined the banner “The Part of the War Machine that Bleeds.” That said, if fans of 1957 pics are looking for that Funny Face froth, you might want to check out something a bit less corrosive first, like Sweet Smell of Success. If, however, you’re up for one of the most uncompromising (and best) war movies ever made, you can’t do much better than doing a tour of duty with Benson and Montana.

MEN IN WAR.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF750.  SRP: $29.95.

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